Fortunes Matutu, Feature
ENVIRONMENTAL degradation is a common problem for humankind, especially women. The present environmental problems are caused mostly by human activities and exacerbated by climate change.
These cause severe damage to habitats affecting the supply of natural resources and ecosystem services that are important in sustaining peoples’ livelihoods and socioeconomic activities. Evidence from research shows that there is a correlation between environment degradation and gender-based violence.
In places with high environmental degradation, there are higher incidences of gender inequality, both as a symptom of tensions in communities and as a tool for oppression and control.
However, women suffer more from environmental degradation because of increased competition over diminishing natural resources, which results in higher rates of violence and exploitation against women.
Traditionally, women are home-makers and take care of their families making sure they are well fed, healthy and comfortable. Often, they are deeply dependent on available natural resources for food, fuel and shelter. Women are particularly vulnerable to environmental degradation since they spend a great deal of time and energy maintaining their families. Women’s and men’s priorities differ in how they utilise and manage natural resources.
Gender-based violence (GBV) is primarily used as a systemic means to reinforce existing privileges and power imbalances over roles and access to resources. Limited natural resources make it more difficult for women to perform tasks like gathering food, water, and firewood, increasing their vulnerability to GBV.
Today, women spend more time searching for firewood than they did decades ago in most communal areas. Where it used to be that women and girls could harvest firewood from nearby fields and bushes, today due to depletion and deforestation they must walk up to 10km each day to collect the firewood. There is a high risk that these women will run into problems with men or wild animals.
Several reports describe women being attacked and raped while fetching firewood far away from their residences or being killed or attacked by wildlife while collecting firewood. The effects of natural disasters such as droughts and erratic rains are disproportionately felt by women, especially where levels of gender equality are low and essential resources are inadequate. In most semi-arid parts of the country, there is seasonal water rationing in communities.
There is an unfair advantage given to men over women by their tendency to make decisions that are easier for them in comparison to their female counterparts. For instance, during the dry season, some community water points ration water to livestock and households. While women only have access to water between sunset and sunrise, men and their livestock have the whole day to water their animals. Some nutrition gardens, which mainly belong to women, are forced to cease operations during the dry season to make way for livestock owned primarily by men.
Women in the gold mining sector experience a number of challenges such as victimisation by the male gangs, disposition of gold mining claims and all forms of GBV. Together with environmental degradation; sexual harassment, physical abuse and emotional abuse are pervasive in artisanal mining areas.
The situation has been made worse with the advent of machete gangs. On several occasions, communities with gold have highlighted the challenges facing the girl child. Artisanal miners have proved to be a social menace not only causing environmental degradation but also exploitation of the girl child.
They use their income to attract school-going girls into relationships, which results in a high rate of child marriage and school dropouts. With persistent environmental degradation, competition over scarce natural resources aggravates GBV in communities. GBV is systematically being used as a tool to assert control over natural resources.
This gives rise to practices such as sex-for-mopane worms/firewood/water, were land owners or men masquerading as land owners refuse access to women if they do not engage in sexual activities with them. Due to overexploitation and deforestation, mopane worms are now predominantly found far from homesteads.
The women harvest mopane worms in temporary camps and sell some, while others are taken back to their homes for domestic use. With limited negotiation skills, these women are forced or coerced into selling their mopane worms at very low prices or engaging in unfair bartering. Moreover, the GBV extends beyond unfair trading; women have reported axe-wielding men harassing, threatening, or stealing mopane worms from them in the forest.
In a world of dwindling natural resources and climate change, the plight of women is further exacerbated by negatively ascribed gender norms such as masculinity and patriarchy that normalise GBV.
These norms contribute to the chronic under representation of women in community decision-making regarding natural resources and environmental conservation. Despite the existence of community-based management committees for natural resources and the environment, women rarely chair them.
These committees are dominated by men who have the final say. Surprisingly, even in instances where there are a majority of women on a committee, one male member usually has the final word and directs its operation. To change gender relations and environmental management, we need to work closely with women and girls to change perceptions, knowledge, attitudes, behaviours, social norms, and legal entitlements.
The role of women in community-based natural resource management needs to be expanded. As a start, gender equality should be promoted and girls and women should be offered equal opportunities within their communities. Women can be active agents of conservation and restoration of natural resources, as their care-giving responsibilities and livelihood activities are often highly dependent on these resources. In a few empowered communities, women have played a role in natural resource management that has resulted in better governance, social cohesion, and environmental protection.
Fortunes Matutu is a forestry officer with the Forestry Commission providing capacity-building services for women groups to ensure socio-economic enhancement and sustainable forest management.